Let's be honest: we don’t get out to the movies much. We are the exact wrong people to give you any recommendation of the latest releases at your local theater. But recently we've come across and enjoyed a few films on farming, food, and social justice that seemed so relevant, thought-provoking, and compelling, that we wanted to share them with you. Our first film review covers a Magnolia Pictures documentary on hunger in the US.
We saw A Place at the Table when it showed as part of the Peace and Justice Film Series at the University of Montana. The film examines the issue of hunger, specifically child hunger, in the United States, where one in four children experiences food insecurity at some point in their life.
The storytelling is good, offering a mix of compelling experts in the legal, policy, and health issues surrounding child hunger but anchoring the narrative firmly in the first-hand experience of several families, in both urban and rural settings across the US.
One of the key issues the film illustrates very well is that childhood hunger and obesity are not problems on opposite ends of a spectrum, but are in fact intricately linked. It is possible for a child to be both hungry (as in not knowing when or what the next meal might be) and obese. One mother, whose diabetic second-grade daughter illustrates the trend of the development of health problems in younger and younger children, talks about her challenge of trying to stretch dollars by buying the cheapest available foods available in her local stores--which are generally highly processed and less healthy. The girl answers the school health worker's questions about what she will eat when she goes home after school with a single word: chips.
Another eye-opening point in the film was that agricultural subsidies in the US go overwhelmingly to crops that are the main components of highly processed foods. Vegetables and fruits represent a tiny sliver of the agricultural subsidies to farmers. This is reflected in the availability of healthy foods in some geographic areas; both of the urban families discuss how far they have to go to reach a fully stocked grocery store, or find any basic foods like whole fruits and vegetables. The camera follows one mother on a three-bus, one-hour journey one way to the nearest grocery store.
This is one of those films--the best sort, really--that leaves one asking "well, what can I do?" I cringed at the well-meaning enthusiastic student coordinators of the film series who stood up after the showing, thanked everyone for coming, and asked for donations that would go to a Kiva account "to fund projects, like farming and food projects all over the world." Though I understand the good intention, it seemed almost as though they had missed several key points of the film: that hunger is not just a problem in other parts of the world, but a fundamental threat to the health and productivity of the United States, as well.
Like most real issues, there is not a simple answer to "what can we do?" Certainly, giving to or volunteering at a food bank helps, in the short term. Establishing community gardens in food-desert neighborhoods, or working to help schools incorporate fresh local farm products or simply acquaint kids with healthy whole foods, are all wonderful. The odds are high that an organization near you can provide that opportunity.
But we can't let ourselves off the hook with a $10 donation to the local food bank; when we dig in it's clear that the root causes are grittier, less charming, and harder to tackle. Measures like private charity programs and government food assistance, which were intended as short-term stopgap measures, have become long-term projects that are not an effective way to accomplish the goal of food security. Poverty and government agriculture and food policies do not make for such satisfying volunteer opportunities. But I'd encourage you to watch the film, think about the message, and look for ways to keep that in mind in your own actions, votes, and conversations. As the film explains, hunger in the US should be seen as an issue of national security: when the children who could or should be the future leaders of science, engineering, military, and education, are unable to focus in school and chronically underperform because of their hunger, we are not setting ourselves to live up to full potential as communities or a nation.